Digital cultural commentator
Digital communication is evolving from text-based to being visual. This is already happening as Pinterest and Instagram are growing faster than text-based platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
By the 2020s, visual communication is likely to be dominant, with multimedia artists, animators and illustrators being in greater demand by organisations wanting to communicate with a mass audience.
Visual skills such as animation will be complemented with music, text, object-oriented programming and augmented reality.
The ideal worker in this field blends advanced technology skills with the humanities. They understand human nature and know how to use the latest technology to create compelling narratives.
Pokemon Go to make even more money
What do you do when you have a viral game that encourages players to walk around streets and parks? Sell ads, of course.
The developer of Pokémon Go said it will soon accept sponsored partnerships to make certain locations appear more prominently in the mobile game that has taken the country by storm.
The move to make even more money off this juggernaut makes sense given just how popular the game has become. Since its July 6 launch, it has become the biggest mobile game in history. It now has more daily users than Twitter, and people are spending more time on it than on Facebook. And the Wall Street Journal reported that advertising companies have been reaching out to Niantic to figure out how to get their clients in on the game.
Until the official partnerships start, some businesses that are already PokéStops – places in the game where players can find Pokémon and in-game items – have taken it upon themselves to do a little unofficial promotion. Players in the game can buy an item called a “lure,” which increases the number of cartoon monsters that appear in the game – critters that players have to physically track down to level up in the app.
Lures last 30 minutes. For about $10, you can buy enough lures to keep people coming to your store for four hours.
A pizzeria in Brooklyn used this tactic to draw in more customers and saw business jump by 75 percent, according to the New York Post. Washington’s Politics and Prose bookshop put down lures to draw players Tuesday evening, said Jon Purves, the store’s director of marketing and publicity. The store itself is a gym – a place in the game where players can battle for dominance – and a mural on the store’s wall is also a dedicated PokéStop.
“It certainly did bring people by,” Purves said. “All throughout the evening we were seeing lots of kids coming along, and lots of adults as well hang out on the mural.” He said that, overall, the store spent about $5 to draw people in for the evening and that the store was happy with the return on its investment. Other nearby businesses, such as Comet Ping Pong, also benefited from the lure.
“We might be talking to them about shared lure opportunities” in the future, Purves said.
“What if the possibilities were truly infinite?” a seductive voice whispers in my ear as I gaze around me at a universe of galaxies and constellations.
No, I hadn’t taken any drugs, though the speed at which virtual reality is improving threatens to hook more of us who crave technology’s equivalent of a legal high. I’m actually wearing a Gear VR headset with the Galaxy S7 smartphone clipped to the front of it, putting me in the middle of a 360-degree simulation of the universe.
The Gear VR arrived in 2015, but only now are applications appearing that give a glimpse of its potential. The Oculus store is teeming with games that show off VR’s immersive attributes. But there’s plenty for smartphone users who don’t play games.
Netflix takes on a new aspect in VR – you can sit on a red couch in a swanky apartment with House of Cards playing in front of you. Plug in your headphones and the experience is truly absorbing, particularly if your own lounge is shabby in comparison.
In Streetview VR, you jump to areas on the maps made famous by Google and swivel your head around to gain perspective. Voice recognition picks up your spoken location of choice. “Auckland” plonked me in the middle of a busy Queen St intersection.
Elsewhere there are apps that let you tour museums and watch concerts. There’s a whole line of apps in meditation and relaxation – watch the sun going down as waves crash on a beach and new-age music plays in the background.
Recently I tried a VR app created by Wellington company Genulin Interactive, developed with the Malaghan Institute, which takes the viewer inside the body to see a simulation of how cancer immunotherapy works on cells. When I saw that, VR’s scope for changing how we work, learn and communicate new ideas really hit home.
Actually, none of these ideas are particularly novel, but they all take on a heightened, slightly surreal feel in VR. It can be an intensely individual experience with those goggles strapped on – until you jump into a multi-player game or Altspace VR, one of the first social networks in the virtual world.
Described as “a treasure hunt for the 21st century”, Endgame’s enhanced elements are an indicator of the book industry’s increasingly digitised future, says the 45-year-old. “A book is still a book, but it’s inevitable that technology is going to start bleeding into them,” he says. “In America, over 50% of books sold now are e-books. But at the same time, the idea that the storytellers aren’t going to start extending their worlds and their mythologies into all these other platforms is ridiculous.”
Evoking the dystopian spirit of The Hunger Games’ gladiatorial bouts, Endgame’s main characters are adolescent “Players” who are pitted against each other by a mysterious alien race in a bid to save their people from the impending apocalypse. With its multinational cast, the closest the novel gets to New Zealand is laid-back Coffin Bay resident Alice Ulapala. “We did consider Maori,” says Frey. “But we couldn’t avoid the Aborigines because they’re the oldest culture in the world. We couldn’t have both Maori and Aborigines and there were a lot of countries that didn’t get represented. In our view, Maori would ultimately be with the line of the Aborigine.”
The most useful thing Richard MacManus learnt from monitoring his activity levels using a Fitbit Tracker – basically a high-tech pedometer – was how little activity he actually did. “It was shockingly low – I was only walking about 2000 steps a day,” admits the Wellington-based technology writer.
After a few months of using his Fitbit, which unlike a standard pedometer can also calculate how many calories you use, he realised he needed to do about 8000 steps a day to keep his weight at a good level and his body happy. Thanks to the data provided by Fitbit, he now knows exactly how to reach that goal; a morning walk to his local cafe and back is good for 3000 steps and a second walk later on gets his daily count up to an acceptable level.
Once he had his activity levels sorted, MacManus abandoned the Fitbit and turned his attention to tracking his food consumption using the MyFitnessPal iPhone app. As a type 1 diabetic, the founder of technology blog ReadWrite.com had more reason than most to monitor his food intake, particularly his carbohydrate consumption. People with this kind of diabetes have to limit how many carbohydrates they eat to help control their blood sugar levels. He also used Diamedic, which records glucose readings and other vital statistics.
MacManus spent several months using MyFitnessPal to work out the diet that best suited him, then stopped using that as well. However, he expects he’ll use both it and Fitbit again in the future – “particularly if I start to find I’m having problems with my diet, or I start gaining weight”.
He’ll be in good company: an estimated 40 million people have downloaded the MyFitnessPal app. How many of those will actually achieve their goals remains to be seen. Fitbit co-founder James Park has claimed, however, that his company’s tracking device leaves the average user about 40% more active after about 12 weeks. Apps that give instant feedback hold the promise of lasting motivation – to lose weight, get healthier and improve your quality of life.
Those downloading millions are part of a growing number of people involved in health self-tracking – or as it’s known in Silicon Valley, “quantified self” or QS – which MacManus says will take another big step forward when the Apple watch comes onto the market sometime this year. It’s expected to have 10 or more sensors to track health and fitness activity. “It’s going to be a game-changer.”
The QS movement is in pursuit of greater self-knowledge through the use of biometric data collected through the powerful devices we now carry with us everywhere and use to find out things, be entertained, pay bills, look for love and sometimes even communicate with other human beings. It’s estimated there are 100,000 apps devoted to health for Android and iPhone, a number that’s doubled in the past two years. The app market for health and fitness is worth about US$4 billion, but is predicted to hit US$26 billion by 2017. The number of health apps continues to increase across every category, including those related to the heart, respiration, asthma, allergies, sleep, light exposure, bones, the nervous system, mental health and sexual health. Some apps, such as BlueStar, which helps people with type 2 diabetes, are only available with a doctor’s prescription.
Health apps gather information by way of wristband devices, smart watches, heart-rate monitors and internet-linked weighing scales. Soon these will be joined by ear wearables, phone cases and sweat strips (see page 19). Microchips embedded beneath the skin, which are already being used by some “biohackers”, may become more common.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
MacManus’s interest in health technology was triggered when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2007. Unlike the more common type 2 diabetes, type 1 cannot be prevented, but it can be controlled by a combination of insulin medication, healthy food choices and exercise.
As a longtime observer of the tech world, MacManus took that personal interest a step further and spent a year researching health-tracking apps and devices. The result was Trackers: How Technology is Helping Us Monitor & Improve Our Health, which provides an in-depth analysis of the apps, devices and services that are currently available and some that are further down the technology track. He believes services such as individual genetic mapping, already available through companies such as the US-based 23andMe, have the potential to make a huge difference to people’s ability to identify potential health issues and take action to prevent them.
In 2012, MacManus took a 23andMe test, which indicated he had a higher than average risk of getting type 1 diabetes. It was still only a 4.1% lifetime risk, based on the genetic variations the company focuses on in the genome. As he points out, that figure isn’t particularly useful, because even if he had received it before he actually developed the disease, he couldn’t have done anything to prevent it.
“The main problem at the moment is that the data is hard to make practical use of. There’s just so much that’s unknown about DNA in terms of interpreting it.” That includes epigenetic changes, in which an individual’s lifestyle and environment can alter the expression of genes either favourably or not.
Difficulties with interpreting the data is just one of the obstacles facing 23andMe. In November 2013, the US Federal Drug Administration undercut the Google-backed company by banning it from providing users with the kind of risk calculations it sent MacManus, saying they weren’t accurate enough and could be misleading. MacManus believes 23andMe will eventually overcome this setback. “I think it has a great future.”
Scientists are delving deeper into genetics to find out what makes us tick and they’re also increasingly studying our microbiome – the changing communities of bacteria that inhabit our bodies. One of Silicon Valley’s hottest new biotech start-ups, uBiome, has developed a simple swab kit that allows users to collect bacterial samples for testing and comparison with a database of other users. With micro-organisms increasingly linked with health conditions from obesity to autism, the bacteria in our gut and elsewhere could help pinpoint what’s ailing us.
In Trackers, MacManus also investigates start-ups such as NeuroProfile, which is working on the idea of people being able to improve their brain function by way of getting regular MRI scans to establish a baseline. The idea is that through practices such as meditation, visual exercises and “non-invasive brain stimulation” – that is, applying tiny electrical pulses – the brain’s “neuroplasticity” can be employed. Another plan is to use the company’s technology to be able to predict diseases such as Alzheimer’s, so that people can attempt to curb impairment or perhaps at least plan ahead.
A WORLD OF POSSIBILITY
For many of us, the idea of self-tracking may seem like a step too far. Who has the time, let alone the inclination, to collect and record all that data? According to MacManus, you don’t need to be obsessive about it to get good results. “One of the most important things I learnt is that you can do it for just two or three months and find out what you need to know, make the necessary adjustments, then stop using them.”
He’s careful to stress that despite claims by some diehard Silicon Valley enthusiasts that self-tracking will eventually replace doctors, he sees it as a way of complementing rather than replacing medical advice and monitoring. “It’s certainly not a panacea for anything, but it gives you interesting data about your own body and daily patterns and helps you instigate changes in your life. And once doctors get more comfortable using this technology, they’ll be able to use it to help their patients.”
Auckland public health physician and medical researcher Robyn Whittaker agrees. She believes that although self-tracking is still very much in its infancy, it will eventually become a useful tool for doctors. She can see it being particularly helpful in the treatment of people with chronic conditions, who may be able to use apps or devices to monitor their physiological responses to lifestyle changes or new drugs. “They’ll be able to tell their doctor whether it worked for them or not and have the evidence for that. It’ll help them to get into shared decision-making with their physician.”
Like MacManus, Whittaker also believes genetic mapping will be a useful tool in the future. Among the more interesting possibilities is its ability to be used to determine who’s likely to benefit from a particular medication and who’s likely to react badly to it. “We’re a long way off genetic mapping being universally helpful. There’s still a lot to be learnt in this area, and there’s likely to be a world of possibilities that we’re not even aware of yet.”
The future of wearable tech
Devices for monitoring your health have so far been mainly pedometers, trackers that clip to your belt or bra and watches and bracelets. But more are coming.
- Ear wearables, or “hearables”, show much promise, partly because the temporal artery is close to the ear, allowing devices to measure heart rate, respiration and blood oxygen rate, blood pressure and number of steps taken. Some, such as iriverOn and FreeWavz, let you listen to music while monitoring your heart, breath and calories burnt. SensoTrack, out this year, will keep tabs on your heart and breath, determine your steps, pace, location, altitude and calories used and plug the data into your weight, BMI and blood sugar stats. BitBite, when it launches, will sit in your ear and monitor what you eat and how you chew.
- Smartphone cases are increasingly being used to monitor your vital signs. AliveCor is an iPhone case that monitors your heart rate and rhythms on the go, checking for indications of abnormal patterns that might precede events such as a stroke. A version without a case can be used with an Android device. Wello promises to monitor your heart, breath, blood oxygen and temperature.
Strip sensors such as Electrozyme will go even further, analysing your sweat to find out what’s happening with your body chemistry. You’ll be able to know your precise hydration levels and electrolyte balance, and find out how hard your muscles are working and whether you’re heading for heat exhaustion.
The Trolls and Tribulations of Social Media
It was the flag debate that stirred up my Facebook friends. Suddenly a group of strangers who have no connection, aside from me, were scrapping. One took to the keyboard to rant; others softened their opinions with a smiley emoticon. A decade ago they might have discussed the issue with a few mates over a beer but today, when the nation divides, it is publicly and vociferously via social media channels.
All this digital hot air is most likely wasted. The latest study of Facebook reveals it is a stronghold of confirmation bias. Research by the Laboratory of Computational Social Science in Lucca, Italy, shows we seek out information that confirms our beliefs and ignore anything contrary to them. We form communities of like-minded people whether we’re debating flag designs, the US election or some off-the-wall conspiracy theory, and in doing so we strengthen whatever opinion we had in the first place.
Facebook – still the leading social network with 1.5 billion monthly active users worldwide – remains the platform that is most about staying in touch with people you know. But hundreds of millions more are posting on image-sharing networks such as Instagram, Pinterest and Weheartit. They are mini-blogging on Twitter and Tumblr. Live broadcasting on Periscope and Meerkat. Digesting everything from snackable bites of philosophy to recipes on Google+ and dating on Tinder or Grinder. Chatting about books on Goodreads. Connecting on Snapchat. Professionally networking on LinkedIn.
Yet despite the proliferation of social media outlets and globalisation, New Zealand retains its own social media character. Just because something is trending overseas it doesn’t mean it will here. “You see Kiwis getting all ‘soapboxy’ on Facebook, which is very unusual,” says Auckland social media professional Wendy Thompson. “And Twitter is a very unbalanced community in this country. All the media are on there, all the politicians, a massive left-wing contingent. In general, Twitter attracts people who have strong opinions; it’s more negative, a shouty public thing. And when you look at who is most vocal, it’s generally not young people, it’s men in their fifties and sixties.”
“The members of these communities provide real-time feedback on everything that the other members say, because that’s how the platform works. Mostly the community provides validation to people who say the right thing, but very harsh criticism if they say the wrong thing, and even expulsion if they really challenge the consensus viewpoint.”
Less serious but still insidious is the fakery of the social media world – all those perfect Instagrammers posting photos of themselves in their active wear, sipping on green smoothies, the Facebookers who seem to be living the dream in flash restaurants and overseas destinations, all of it leading to a self-esteem-denting sense that everyone is fitter, prettier and having a better time than you are.
Australian Instagram star Essena O’Neill quit the platform citing unrealistic “fitsperation” images that distort the idea of beauty and drove her to adopt unhealthy eating habits so she looked thin enough to post the highly staged, often sponsored, perfect photos of herself that she has since deleted. “Social media is not real life,” the 19-year-old declared.
But for many it is a large part of everyday life. About two million Kiwis log on to Facebook every day. The average user checks in about 15 times a day.
And it’s not all bad. Much of the popular local content is of social benefit – the Facebook community groups that tell you what’s going on in your neighbourhood, the Pay It Forward Facebook pages doing good deeds, the many agencies now using social media to convey information. Police, for example, regularly load photos and videos of wanted criminals in the modern equivalent of a Wanted poster.
It all makes for vast amounts of content. In a single day there are about one billion Facebook posts and 400 million tweets worldwide. It has been estimated it would take 10 years to view all the photos shared on Snapchat alone in a single hour; and by then another 880,000 years’ worth would have been posted.
But all this sharing and connecting may not be making us any happier (Facebook’s lonely hearts, page 22). Researchers in Denmark have found that Facebook users were less happy, more worried and lonelier than non-users. After one week without it, participants reported a significantly higher level of satisfaction. Other studies have looked at the way the constant self-comparison triggers feelings of envy that in turn can lead to depression. Research from Austria’s University of Innsbruck found the longer people spent on Facebook the worse they felt – largely because of a sense they weren’t using their time meaningfully.
So why does social media have such a hold over us? Even when it’s not rewarding, we keep going back for more, partly because each time we check into social media it stimulates the release of small amounts of dopamine, the feel-good hormone. What it actually does is cause seeking behaviour, says US psychologist Susan Weinschenk, who explains that social media supplies almost instant gratification for the desire to seek, putting us in what she refers to as “a dopamine loop” (you get rewarded, which makes you seek more).
Moreover, the dopamine system is most powerfully stimulated when the information coming in is small so that it doesn’t fully satisfy – hence you crave more of those 140-character bursts of pleasure.
So is social networking addictive? Potentially, says US psychologist Michael Fenichel who has introduced a new term Facebook Addiction Disorder (Fad). He defines this as a condition where hours are spent on social media to the extent that the healthy balance of an individual’s life is affected – one warning sign is having multiple Facebook windows open, another is being on social media when you really ought to be sleeping.
More than half of New Zealanders use Facebook most or all of the time while watching TV, and 1.6 million of them access it from their mobile phones, presumably while they’re out and about doing other things. All this multi-tasking is depleting our brains, says US behavioural neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of The Organised Mind. “The brain didn’t evolve to deal with so many things at once,” he says. “It evolved in a much simpler world with far less information coming at us.”
The truth, as any neuroscientist will tell you, is that multi-tasking is a myth. What we’re actually doing is shifting our attention from one thing to another very rapidly. This comes at a high cost, says Levitin. “Every time you do that you’re using up neural resources. You’re causing the brain to be in a state of stress. Cortisol spikes, as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenalin, and rational thinking shuts down.”
Divided attention has been shown to affect memory – a 2006 Stanford University study found that learning while multi-tasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. An earlier study from Gresham College, London, showed it can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.
“Cloudy thinking is the main problem,” says Levitin. “But we also get addicted to this task-switching because the brain has evolved to have a novelty bias. We would rather pay attention to something new than something old. That served us well when we lived in the same village and knew the same people our entire life. Now we are bombarded with constant novelty.”
Neuroscientists are still discovering exactly how the noise of social media affects human brains. Meanwhile, the high-tech brains of super-computers crunching through all that “big data” have potential in other fields. At the University of Auckland’s Te Punaha Matatini, Centre for Research Excellence, Shaun Hendy wants to harness the personal details being volunteered on Twitter to track flu as it moves through the population. “It’s early days yet, but the end goal is to find ways to prevent the spread of disease, particularly if there were to be a pandemic, and we’re doing that through better understanding.”
Interestingly, Hendy is looking at using tweets to track the spread of ideas through the population. “The way ideas are transmitted is a little bit like disease,” he says.
“A lot of economic growth is dependent on innovation. We’re trying to understand where good ideas come from.”